Brought to you by CHYP’s Parenting Blog

May 24th, 2021

By: Lonnie Zeltzer, MD

What is hypnotherapy?

Hypnotherapy is like physical therapy for the brain.

Hypnotherapy increases the brain’s ability to imagine things that one chooses to imagine, and strengthens the brain’s ability to experience activities through the imagination. It’s one of many ways that people in pain can develop their own strategies and self-efficacy in reducing pain.

All hypnotherapy is under the individual’s control. (It’s not like entertainment hypnotists who get people to do funny things while others watch.)

How does hypnotherapy work?

A trained clinical hypnotherapist will get to know your child’s interests, activities, fears, and other aspects of his/her/their life. The hypnotherapist will then help your child engage in an imaginary experience. Some hypnotherapists guide the child. Some allow the child to select his/her/their own imaginative experiences.

A typical hypnotherapy experience might progress in the following way:

  • An induction: The hypnotherapist helps your child develop a narrowed focus of attention. This might involve staring at an object, or an arm lift process (“Notice your arm beginning to feel lighter and lighter as if a balloon is tied to your wrist and lifting it slowly upward…”).
  • A deepening process: The child’s body feels more deeply and deeply relaxed and heavy as they ride down an elevator, walk down steps, etc. With each downward step or lower floor level, the child feels progressively more relaxed/heavy – until they are almost too relaxed to move or even want to move.
  • Going to a favorite place: This could be someplace your child has been before — or would like to go — and really “be there.” For example, noticing the smells, the sounds, the feel of the ground under their feet, etc. It could be someplace relaxing, like a beach, or even doing something active, like playing a game of soccer.
  • A post-hypnotic suggestion: This is a strategy for easily returning to the relaxed place recently experienced, helping the brain return to this “feel good place,” and giving a special signal that reminds the brain how to return to this comfortable experience.

There are variations on the above and, often, pain is not even included in this imaginative process.

How does hypnotherapy change pain circuits?

During an imaginative experience under the child’s control, he/she/they are developing and strengthening new neural pathways/new electrical highways that remove neural activity/energy from the pain highway to other areas of the brain.

Functional MRI and other probes into brain activity have shown that with hypnotherapy, the central pain highway becomes weaker as other areas of the brain become more active in pleasant, positive ways.

This process also changes downstream brain-to-body neural signals — often through the autonomic nervous system (ANS) — in ways that calm the body and reduce stress systems.

Hypnotherapy can be a valuable tool for dealing with chronic pain, with scientific evidence supporting how the process works. It may be helpful to consider hypnotherapy as part of your child’s treatment for pain, stress, or anxiety.

Lonnie Zeltzer, M.D., is a Distinguished Research Professor of Pediatrics, Anesthesiology, Psychiatry and Biobehavioral Sciences at the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA and Immediate Past-Director of the UCLA Pediatric Pain and Palliative Care Program. She is a co-author on the Institute of Medicine report on Transforming Pain in America and is a member of the national steering committee assigned to provide directions for pain research at the National Institutes of Health (NIH).  She has received, among other awards, a Mayday Pain and Policy Fellowship and the 2005 Jeffrey Lawson Award for Advocacy in Children’s Pain Relief from the American Pain Society (APS).  Her UCLA integrative pediatric pain program received a 2009 Clinical Centers of Excellence in Pain Management Award from APS and a 2012 award from the Southern California Cancer Pain Initiative.  She is active in advocacy for pain care and research. She was an invited member of the Institute of Medicine National Expert Panel on pain in American and was a co-author of the IOM publication on the committee findings in 2011. She was an invited member of the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) Special Advisor on The State of Opioids in America. She is also an invited member of the FDA Committee on Analgesia, Anesthesia, and Addiction, where new pain-related drugs are given FDA approval or not, as well as an invited member of the Expert Advisory Committee on Hemoglobinopathies as a pain expert for the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute (NHLBI) at NIH.  She is also on an expert panel for the NIH on a national study on a mind-body intervention for teens with fibromyalgia. She is also a member of the national Autism Think Tank as a pain expert in autism. Her research includes yoga, mindfulness, hypnotherapy, and other self-help interventions, including mobile technologies, to help children and adolescents who have chronic pain, as well as understanding biopsychosocial pain mechanisms in irritable bowel syndrome, cancer, sickle cell disease, headaches, dysmenorrhea, and other conditions. She has over 350 research publications on childhood pain and complementary therapies, has written more than 80 chapters, and published her first book for parents on chronic pain in childhood (HarperCollins, 2005) and her second book for parents on chronic pain in children and young adults (Shilysca Press, 2016).